Rev. Teri Peterson
The Word of Whose Lord?
12 June 2016, P1-5 (gifted for god’s purpose), Bible in 90 Days 19
Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.’ So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighbourhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.’ She said to him, ‘My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.’ And she said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.’ ‘Go,’ he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
This is one of those stories that makes me hesitant to say “the word of the lord, thanks be to god.” When things like this—and there’s plenty more, and worse, in the rest of Judges—appear in the middle of our holy scripture, I have to wonder how they could possibly be part of our story of good news. How is a story of domestic violence, of child abuse, a part of our story of God’s desire for all creation to know peace and wholeness?
Over the centuries, people feeling this discomfort have tried to solve the story, to make it okay. They have suggested that she wasn’t really killed, in spite of the fact that it says her father “did with her according to the vow he had made” and that vow involved the word that describes offerings that are entirely burned, with no part leftover. They have used her as an example of faithfulness and appropriate womanly submission. They have looked at the ritual of girls going out to lament every year and said the story creates a rite of passage for young women to die to girlhood and emerge as women ready to be married. They have tried to explain away the suffering and terror of this text and its implications.
But it can’t really be explained away. Even God is silent.
What happened here? How did we get from the Torah’s constant refrain about caring for women and children to the place where a father sacrifices his child and no one stops him? In a society that measures its faithfulness by how it treats the marginalized, how could this happen? In a religious community that cares so much about family, inheritance, and living in the land, how is it possible for a man to murder not only his daughter but his family name and inheritance?
As is often the case, it begins with a desire to be powerful and the instinct to take matters into our own hands.
This man had been cast out by his half brothers, looked down upon as inferior, and made to be an outsider. When they needed his strength and his fighting men, they came crawling back with promises to make him their leader. He agreed, if God would give the enemy into his hand…and the spirit of the Lord came upon him, which is the code in Judges for “God guaranteed the victory.”
But the spirit of the Lord wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to hedge his bets, make absolutely certain that things would go his way, so he made a promise. This is the kind of promise I mean when I say that we should never bargain with God, because if we had to keep our end of whatever deal we struck, we would be in trouble. He tries to bribe God: if you let me win this battle, I’ll make a burnt offering of whatever I see first when I get home.
Remember: there’s no need for this bargain, and God cannot be bribed. God didn’t ask for anything in return for the gift of the Spirit. The vow tells us the man doesn’t trust the spirit of the Lord to be enough.
He wins a victory like no one has ever seen…and he believe that his initiative in making a deal with God has bought him the victory…and now believes he has to keep his end of the deal.
In those days it was common for livestock to live in the ground floor and courtyards of homes, so maybe he thought he’d see an animal first. But then again, he would have also known that ever since the exodus, when Miriam led the women in dancing and singing after the Egyptian army was drowned, the women of the Israelites have come out to meet returning victors with tambourines and dancing. It was a custom meant to honor the warriors and the God who gave them victory.
There’s no honor to be had this time, though. After he takes the traditional abuser’s route of blaming her for what he has to do to her, he says “I cannot take back my vow.” And she agrees, her own trust highlighting his lack of faith.
Here’s where we get into trouble, isn’t it?
I cannot take back my vow.
God said it, I believe it, that settles it.
The scripture is clear.
We think it’s a sign of faithfulness. We admire ourselves and each other for standing up for what we believe in. And we sacrifice God’s children to our self-serving limited human understanding.
We want to think this is no longer happening. It’s easier to look back on stories like this with horror, and much harder to look at them as a mirror, showing us the ways we still insist that what we think we know is definitely God’s command and reflecting back to us the uncomfortable truth that our pride will not let us see the alternatives to some vows we have made in our past.
There were alternatives, of course. I’m not sure they would be immediately obvious if we weren’t reading straight through the Bible in such a short period of time, but they jumped out at me this week: Leviticus 5 has a provision for what to do if you make a careless or rash vow that then you cannot keep. And Leviticus 27 tells what to do if the sacrifice you vowed to make is something that cannot be sacrificed. Both offer options ranging from giving a monetary offering to a clean and appropriate animal in place of the illegal one. And child sacrifice—and all human sacrifice—is decidedly and repeatedly forbidden, so this definitely counts as a vow that cannot be kept.
In other words, “I cannot take back my vow” is simply not true. It is, instead, a half-truth. Or a limited understanding of the law. And like abuse still is today, it is based in human pride, in human desire for power, and human unfaithful action. It is a man reading his own words as the word of the Lord, and sacrificing a woman to his own ego. And it is a community saying nothing, because in a time when everyone did what was right in their own eyes, what is there to say to someone who thinks they are doing the right thing, even when it is so obviously the wrong thing?
And so we allow our LGBT children to be sacrificed to our limited human understanding. We allow our children of color to be sacrificed to our comfortable whitewashing of history and our insistence on following rules that were set up to benefit some at the expense of others. We allow thousands of people to be sacrificed to our contemporary understanding of a few sentences in documents hundreds of years old. We allow the vulnerable and marginalized people of the world to be sacrificed to maintain our own supposedly blessed position. We allow 1 in 4 women to be victimized and we, like the man in this story, blame it on her. We pretend that none of these things are related. And when we see it happening to our neighbors, we say nothing, because everyone does what is right in their own eyes.
The story of this lost daughter is like the canary in the coal mine—it shows just how much the society had unraveled, how far they had strayed from their identity and purpose as God’s people. The man receives God’s gift of love and power, but he cannot trust God’s word, and so his life reflects only his own brokenness. He takes God’s good gifts of skill and camaraderie and the spirit’s presence, and he twists them for his own purpose, using those gifts to serve his desire for revenge against his half brothers, his desire for power and status in a community that once cast him aside…and it is his daughter, and their family’s future, that pays the price.
There is no happy ending to this story. Unlike Abraham and Isaac, God doesn’t step in to provide a ram and stop the father’s hand. And the people of God don’t step in to remind him that there are other ways to understand and follow God’s law. The basic flaw in the assumption that we can be faithful on our own, without a community to support and challenge us, is made abundantly clear, as there is no recourse and no accountability, only one man’s inflexible view of his own understanding of God’s law and gift—a view that is the opposite of God’s will for the world.
The only glimmers of light come from the women. The daughter is the only one to utter words of compassion or faith. Her friends are the ones who model what God’s community is supposed to be like, lamenting and supporting each other. The generations of Israelite women who carry on the tradition are the ones who rescue the daughter from the unthinkable fate of being forgotten by her people and left out of God’s promise.
These women have no names in the story—perhaps because they were not considered important enough to remember. Or perhaps because without names, we have no way to narrow their story and insist this is one isolated instance of violence. Since we do not know her name, we can see our daughters in her story, and we can take care that no one is sacrificed to our arrogance or apathy. Since we do not know the names of her friends or the names of the women who carried on her memory, we can see our neighbors and ourselves, and we can practice saying the names of those who have been lost, supporting each other in solidarity and lament, keeping memory alive when our culture would rather we forget and move on.
And perhaps more importantly, we can join the voices of the prophets, the rabbis, the sages, and even the authors of Judges who insist God had nothing to do with this, and condemn the ways we sacrifice each other. We can insist that it is not a man’s right to do with a woman whatever he pleases. We can insist that it is not a parent’s right to do with their children whatever they please. We can commit ourselves to stand up and speak on behalf of those who have no voice. We can be a part of changing a culture that marginalizes some at the expense of others. We can be the village that helps raise the children, so no one is at the mercy of one person’s understanding of the world. We can offer the alternative, expansive, inclusive vision of God’s way. We can work for a world where no one feels the need to use force to prove themselves, or buy God’s favor, or secure their own social position. We can listen to those who lament, and we can join the lament without explaining it away. We can hold each other accountable when our lives reflect anything other than the goodness of God. We can say, and say again, and live as if it is true, that violence is not God’s will for women, or children, or any part of creation.
Then we will be listening to the word of the Lord, and using our gifts for God’s purpose. May it be so. Amen.